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Adventures in La-la land

As the Coalition forces prepare to pull out, other Brits commit to real ‘nation-building’ — educating the next generation. Mary Wakefield reports from rural Afghanistan

26 May 2010

12:00 AM

26 May 2010

12:00 AM

As the Coalition forces prepare to pull out, other Brits commit to real ‘nation-building’ — educating the next generation. Mary Wakefield reports from rural Afghanistan

Snow melts in the Hindu Kush, trickles through the foothills, sluices across flood plains scattered with pink anemones then runs noisily through Worsaj district down to the village of Qanduz, where it is drowned out by the sound of children shouting, ‘I love you!’ They’re either side of a dirt track, the children, throwing glitter, clapping, waving plastic flowers. In front of me, Sarah Fane, the object of their devotion, shakes hands and accepts so many garlands that soon only her eyes are showing above the frills.

This is the welcome Blair dreamt of in Iraq, I think, watching her; the welcome neither Obama nor Cameron can hope for now they’ve effectively given up here in Afghanistan. It’s the welcome our daft new Defence Secretary forfeited when he said last week that Britain was not in ‘this broken, 13th-century country’ for the sake of education, because education is exactly the business Sarah’s in. She raises money in England and then, with the help of the Swedish Committee in Afghanistan and local teachers, she builds schools. As the military makes for the exit, Sarah and co make plans to educate the next generation.

We’re fed tea, led to a table where we sit, decorated like Christmas trees, while the children’s headmaster makes a speech. This is, in fact, not a welcome so much as an ambush. The head heard that Sarah was in Worsaj, he’s seen schools she’s built further down the valley, ogled their cricket bats and computers. He has 1,700 pupils, most of them doing lessons in a field. They need classrooms. Can she help?

As Sarah thinks, a great wall of girls opposite jostle and stare: older ones in burkas; little ones caked in dust. Behind them, their village: mud-brick houses, oxen pulling ploughs, wheat fields, cherry trees. This is the other Afghanistan, the one you don’t see on TV: joyful, independent, heart-breakingly beautiful. All eyes are on Sarah. I expect her to point out how tricky it is to raise cash but she says: ‘I’ll try, I promise.’ The head smiles tentatively and the girl-wall collapses, burying several of the smaller ones under the scrum.

We landed in Kabul a week ago, Sarah and I, her thrilled, me quivering with fear. Kabul, unlike Worsaj, is the Afghanistan you see on TV: roadblocks, armoured cars and casual guns. The girls and boys from American, British and UN aid agencies measure out the months in the manner of expats worldwide, drinking and flirting behind barricades, in bars often not open to Afghans. ‘You’re going into the field?’ said a man in the private security business. ‘Rather you than me!’ The field, it turns out, isn’t just the fighting front line — it’s the whole country outside the capital. Few ever visit the field.

Our first stop in the field, after a horrid flight over the Pamir mountains, is Kunduz, the town where the reporter Stephen Farrell was kidnapped late last year, his fixer shot dead during a chaotic rescue. The airfield spells out the country’s recent history in aviation debris: Russian helicopters rusting into the grass; what looks like the nose-cone of a crashed passenger plane, pointing wistfully at the sky. Kevin, a mercenary from Philly, stands on the tarmac like John Wayne, hands hovering over his gun. ‘You can’t trust anyone here,’ he says.

Kunduz town is not relaxing, but Sarah and the Swedes have set up a school for disabled children here which is full of unexpected happiness. These girls and boys, most deaf, some brain-damaged, had a tough time under the Taleban, isolated and uneducated. They applaud Sarah not by clapping but by fluttering their hands joyfully in the air and we learn the sign for ‘beetle’: fists facing together, thumbs lying on top, extended forefingers wiggling. After a few hours, our translator and fixer, K, signals that we should leave. It’s not safe to stay too long. Word gets out.

How frightened are you of the Taleban, I ask K on the road to our next stop. We have a saying in Pashtun, he says: ‘Be afraid of those who do not fear death.’ How many Taleban are there here? ‘It is not that simple,’ says K. ‘Many ordinary people might fight for the Taleban.’ A German tank rolls towards us, overtaking a man on a donkey. K says, ‘If that tank runs over a child, his parents might become Taleban. If a drone kills farmers going to the market [as they did this week] more Taleban are recruited. And if we hear of military plans to withdraw soon, ordinary Afghans lose the will to resist. Will they leave soon?’ he asks.

A report in my bag states quite clearly that the international forces are gearing up to get out, that the mission is now to create the illusion of a successful transfer. I stay schtum.

‘Well,’ says K. ‘It will take 24 hours for the Afghan army and police to collapse after America leaves. No, wait, that’s not fair,’ he consults his friend in the front seat, then reports back: ‘We think maybe 48 hours.’ They laugh.

Outside Taloqan the mountains are reflected, fragmented, in the pools on the paddy fields. America’s commitment to sponsoring gangsters is reflected in the ‘poppy palaces’, vast mansions with mirrored windows, built by thugs with profits from the opium trade and from the CIA. Everyone knows about Rumsfeld’s misguided love-in with the warlords. Now McChrystal’s at it too — a sure sign of defeat. If there’s one thing that annoys an Afghan more than Hamid Karzai, it’s his brother Ahmed Wali Karzai, the ‘king of Kandahar’. McChrystal once agreed Wali Karzai must go — if you really mean it about nation-building, you spend time fostering relationships with locals, not with the mafia. But according to senior Nato sources, he’s once again in favour as a purveyor of quick-fix intelligence for raids on the Taleban, and the CIA-trained Kandahar strike force have become his personal death squad. The word for poppy in Dari is ‘La-la.’ La-la land. That sounds right.

The next day, as we bump along to Worsaj, my prejudices collide with K’s. There’s a group of women picnicking by the river, top to toe in blue, and with them a little figure, maybe two feet high, in a pint-sized burka. I feel a great burst of outrage. Are even children forced to cover up? ‘No,’ says K, ‘she’s just playing! My little daughter has one too.’ Well, OK, but how can you say you respect women, and still expect them to wear a sack? ‘The burka is a sign a man wishes to protect his wife,’ says K. ‘What is not respectful is when American soldiers storm into the women’s part of the house. This is forbidden, but they do not care.’

At Sarah’s school in Worsaj, the one so envied by the Qanduz headmaster, we discuss the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), as set by the UN. A sea of white headscarves bob around in excitement. The girls chat away about poverty, health and education. And what about gender equality? Sarah points to the boy/girl symbol on the blackboard, a very important MDG and a magnet for aid money. The class looks blank. One girl says gently, as if to an idiot: ‘Perhaps security is more important.’

That night, in the ladies’ section of our host’s house, Sarah and I bed down in the traditional Afghan fashion, on the floor in a dorm. The mother of the household lies at our heads, burping happily in her sleep; her eldest daughter, a pupil at Sarah’s school, snores by the wall. I think about her classmates, all desperate to learn, though not one has a mother who went to school. Military men are fond of talking about ‘the facts on the
ground’. Well, these are the facts on the ground, this mother and daughter. These facts speak for themselves.

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